Jargon holds companies — and communities — together. Is that a good thing?

Photo illustration: Vulture

On Vulture and in New York Magazine, Molly Young muses about the garbage language that functions as the glue in companies. But what do these tiny dialects say about the clans we all belong to?

Molly Young’s article “Garbage Language: Why do corporations speak the way they do?” delves into buzzwords and the role they play in modern corporate life, riffing off the insights in Anna Weiner’s new memoir Uncanny Valley. From Young’s review:

Wiener writes especially well — with both fluency and astonishment — about the verbal habits of her peers: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.” She describes a man who wheels around her office on a scooter barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking, proactive technology, parallelization, and the first-mover advantage. “It was garbage language,” Wiener writes, “but customers loved him.”

Why do we talk this way?

It’s the cult of the insider, once again. Our bosses talk this way. We want to believe we know what these terms mean — we convince ourselves that we do, even if the actual meaning is just beyond the reach of our comprehension. Not only is talking this way a sign of status, but failing to talk this way is a clear signal that you don’t belong.

If you can actually create a coinage that takes off within a company, status accrues. If you can get it to take off outside the company, well, you’re a thought leader. At Forrester this was part of the ethos — and I was as much a part of it as anyone else. I pursued it avidly in the quest for influence. I created the term Technographics, a word to brand our analysis of the technology habits of consumers, meant to evoke demographics and psychographics. (They trademarked it and are still using it, 20 years later.) I christened video recording devices PVRs, for personal video recorders (the industry flirted with that, then settled on DVRs — damn!). And in Groundswell, Charlene Li and I created the POST method, a four-step process for defining social media strategy (People, Objective, Strategy, Technology). People are still using that one.

The challenge, of course, is that thought leaders — inside a company, a community, or an industry — need thought followers.

Individually, this helps us to frame ideas. Collectively, it pollutes the language atmosphere. More from Young’s article:

At my own workplaces, the New Age–speak mingled recklessly with aviation metaphors (holding pattern, the concept of discussing something at the 30,000-foot level), verbs and adjectives shoved into nounhood (ask, win, fail, refresh, regroup, creative, sync, touchbase), nouns shoved into verbhood (whiteboard, bucket), and a heap of nonwords that, through force of repetition, became wordlike (complexify, co-execute, replatform, shareability, directionality). . . .

Our attraction to certain words surely reflects an inner yearning. Computer metaphors appeal to us because they imply futurism and hyperefficiency, while the language of self-empowerment hides a deeper anxiety about our relationship to work — a sense that what we’re doing may actually be trivial, that the reward of “free” snacks for cultural fealty is not an exchange that benefits us, that none of this was worth going into student debt for, and that we could be fired instantly for complaining on Slack about it. When we adopt words that connect us to a larger project — that simultaneously fold us into an institutional organism and insist on that institution’s worthiness — it is easier to pretend that our jobs are more interesting than they seem. Empowerment language is a self-marketing asset as much as anything else: a way of selling our jobs back to ourselves.

Here’s analysis from Jessica Helfland, author and founder of the site Design Observer, as quoted by Young:

Helfand compiled a list of commonly bandied-about words and divided them into categories like Hyphenated Mash-ups (omni-channel, level-setting, business-critical), Compound Phrases (email blast, integrated deck, pain point, deep dive) and Conceptual Hybrids (“shooting” someone an email, “looping” someone in). All of these were phrases with “aspirational authority,” she told me. “If you’re in a meeting and you’re a 20-something and you want to sound in the know, you’re going to use those words.” 

Reflections on the use of jargon

I’ve railed against jargon, both in my book Writing Without Bullshit and in this space. And certainly, the bizspeak that Young calls out is reprehensible.

But anyone who has worked for a company knows that jargon creates fellowship. If you were at Forrester, you knew what “WIM” meant (What It Means), and that made you part of a special club. If you’re in digital marketing, you know (or imagine that you know) what “engagement” means, and why it is important. If you’re in retail, “omnichannel” is more than a buzzword, it’s an ideal to be aspired to. And you may not be able to define what “digital transformation” is, but you certainly understand that corporations that are still running on manual paper-based processes are probably toast in the near future.

As usual, the cure is to think a moment.

It makes sense to create buzzwords that tie your company together. It’s fine to have a secret code that only your own people understand. It’s just that that code shouldn’t be a whole dialect incomprehensible to outsiders.

I’ve advocated for jargon consciousness. That means that every buzzword must have a purpose.

If you say “utilize” when you just mean “use” and “operationalize” to mean “put into action,” you’re just puffing yourself up. If you use so many TLAs (three letter acronyms) that your memos and prose looks like a Dalmation’s pelt, then you’re spewing, not thinking.

If you can define a term clearly — and if it makes sense for everyone in your audience to use it — then let fly. Your coinages and acronyms will inspire.

But they will inspire only if they stand out. That means every one must be carefully considered — and most must be rejected. A jargon word surrounded by a sea of normal writing will make an impression — and may actually inspire people. One surrounded by lots more jargon will just become part of a vacuous assault, creating more bewilderment than enlightenment.

Imagine that each jargon word costs $20. Then you might be able to the balance right. Your readers will thank you.

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  1. (We need to huddle ASAP and facilitate a top-down, disambiguated communications paradigm!) I work on the fringes of the education field, which has its own set of jargon, plus “real” words that mean different things in different contexts. When I was new to my agency, I kept a running list of jargon/edu-speak terms with actual definitions, and I’ve since passed it on to new hires who also come from non-edu backgrounds. One perennial aviation metaphor: “Building the plane in mid-air.”

  2. As the author of “Jargon Kills,” I find it both hard to justify any jargon and to stop using the jargon I have learned as I became an expert in a number of fields. I think the final straw was one of these: 1) people named stuff to make an acronym in an asinine or 2) the jargon overlapped within the same field, so meaning was totally and finally vacated.

    Jargon Kills can be added to my sayings, which I thought would be small, but is growing (“stupidity is not a protected class” is my latest, unfortunately). Interestingly enough I put “do what matters” on the list too today as part of the same issue; that corresponds with your every buzzword (read action) needs a purpose. I do not feel the need to be famous or infamous for any of my sayings; they are basic truths–Ignore at your own peril.

  3. You have another typo. I don’t know who the other person, besides Charlene Li, created the POST method.